Nehlen Reflects On Time At WVU, Virginia Tech Rivalry
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – Over 200 wins, two undefeated seasons and a national championship game appearance, Don Nehlen racked up a lot of memories during his 21 seasons as West Virginia’s head coach.
Perhaps none are as bitter and sweet as those playing longtime rival Virginia Tech. When Nehlen arrived at WVU in 1980, both the Mountaineers and Hokies were second class citizens behind the likes of Pitt and Penn State. But under the leadership of Nehlen and Tech’s Frank Beamer, the two programs erased the gap and began a rivalry that would stage some of the most epic battles over the last quarter century for both teams.
“When I first came here all I heard about was Pitt and Penn State,” Nehlen said. “Frank came on the scene and had some tough sledding for a couple years and then got it going. And you know, from a rivalry standpoint, I’m not too sure the fans didn’t like that one better than the other ones, especially down south. I’m glad we are playing them again. It’s good for us.”
Now the two will be reunited on Sept. 3 when West Virginia and Virginia Tech meet for the first time in a dozen years in a neutral site game in Landover, Md. Both coaches were selected as honorary captains for their respective schools, and will be present during the coin flip as the programs renew the rivalry for the Black Diamond Trophy. The winning school’s captain will present the trophy during postgame.
“I was gonna sit at home and have a hot fudge sundae and watch that daggone game,” Nehlen said. “Now I gotta get to Washington, D.C. to flip a coin. But it’ll be fun. I’m anxious to see him.”
For those too young to remember, a hot fudge sundae was good for much of what ailed during Nehlen’s tenure, and the coach still enjoys them to this day. It was his go-to food after a lengthy fall Saturday afternoon, and he celebrated many a victory over Virginia Tech, spoon in hand, while also reflecting on a handful that got away. Nehlen, 81, went 149-93-4 in Morgantown and 202-138-8 during a storied career overall. He was just the 17th coach in NCAA Division I-A history to reach that 200-win mark, and he took WVU to 13 bowls and 17 winning seasons, including 11-0 records in 1988 and ’93.
But he might never have faced a better player than Virginia Tech quarterback Michael Vick. The All-American and Heisman Trophy finalist was Tech’s answer to West Virginia’s Major Harris, a running quarterback whose athleticism and elusiveness was so far ahead of the game that it was virtually impossible to stop them. When WVU fans recall Harris, the first image that comes to mind is the quarterback striding into the end zone, having eluded seven Penn State defenders in a display of quickness and change of direction that simply became known as “The Play.”
Virginia Tech has its own version with Vick, and it involves West Virginia.
“In my opinion, Michael Vick was the best college football player we ever played against,” Nehlen said. “We played some guys who were pretty daggone good, but none of them any better than Michael Vick. He could flat out run. Those quarterbacks that go back to throw and can’t find anything and take off, there’s no defense for it. There’s not much answer for a scrambling quarterback as good as he was.”
There have been many memorable moments in that series, from WVU’s 2002 victory in Blacksburg to its 2003 home win when the Hokies were ranked No. 3 in the nation, or the 1997 lambasting of Tech in a Top 25 match-up at Mountaineer Field and the bitter 2004 loss in Lane Stadium when the Mountaineers entered rated sixth.
But none stick out to Hokie fans quite like that 1999 game, when Vick rescued Tech’s unbeaten season from the grave.
Nehlen recalled the contest, one in which West Virginia was a vast underdog to the third-ranked and undefeated Hokies. The Mountaineers inexplicably rallied from a 12-point deficit with five minutes left via two touchdowns behind back-up quarterback Brad Lewis. Lewis had replaced future NFL pro bowler Marc Bulger because of injury, and the young sophomore was playing in just his 10th career game. Lewis led a pair of scoring drives, finding Jerry Porter and Khori Ivy with touchdown passes to come back from 19-7 down for a 20-19 lead with 75 seconds left.
But Vick worked his magic, moving the Hokies near midfield with 35 seconds left. On second-and-one, Vick scrambled right, then escaped the pocket and raced to the sideline. Only instead of heading out of bounds, Vick eyed a crease and hit it, gaining 20 more yards and putting Virginia Tech in range for the game-winning field goal. Three plays later, kicker Shayne Graham connected from 44 yards out, saving the game, and Tech’s eventual perfect regular season in a 22-20 Hokies’ win.
“I played in the Pro-Am down at the Greenbrier, and the pro (Brendon De Jonge) was a Virginia Tech graduate,” Nehlen said. “He said ‘Coach, the first football game I ever saw was in Mountaineer Field. I came to Virginia Tech as a student and my roommate said let’s go to West Virginia to watch a game. That was the first game I ever saw, when Michael Vick got down the sideline.’ I said ‘You’re going to ruin my golf game. I don’t want to hear it.’
“Pitt, Penn State, Virginia Tech, when I coached here they were monumental games,” said Nehlen, who won 10 games against Tech during his tenure. “Everybody looked forward to them. Our kids did, our fans did. The fact they are coming back on the schedule is big.”